Picasso, the quintessential maverick, is an artist revered by many, and this latest Tate Britain effort will only further cement his reputation. But this show isn’t mere hero-worship, the emphasis here is on interpretation and an active, rather than passive appreciation. It’s the first of its kind – an exploration of the effect the Spanish master’s work has had on seven British artists, as well as a survey of his varying reception with British collectors, curators, and the public. It’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s got lots of work and lots of wall text. But most importantly it offers elegant insight into the power of one man’s continually evolving legacy.
Curator Chris Stephens assigned himself a mighty task when he decided to bring together Picasso’s various movements alongside career highlights from British artists Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney.
His chronological approach remains pleasantly un-stiff, with each room boasting its own mythology, rich with anecdotes that carry the show at an entertaining pace. Room One, for instance, tells the tale of a young Duncan Grant who traveled to Paris, met Gertrude Stein and ended up having his mind blown cubist-style by Picasso et. al, before incorporating the artist’s African-style figures and decorative prints into his own work.
Continuing from here is another lesser known Picasso exploit – the summer of 1919 he spent in style at the Savoy Hotel during his first trip to London, where he arrived on commission to design costumes and sets for the Russian Ballet’s Three Cornered Hat.
His joyful collection is presented here along with sketches of friends made while fraternising with the best of the British avant-guarde (evenings with Aldous Huxley, Lydia Lopokova, John Maynard Keynes and the critic Clive Bell will live on in dinner-party infamy).
But it wasn’t always high-times for Picasso. Periods of criticism and poorly-received exhibitions plagued the artist throughout much of his early career, and for decades his British collectors numbered very few. Picasso built strong ties with his best British buyers, and the acquisitions of Douglas Cooper and Roland Penrose on show here are of staggering quality – a wonderful mix of well known and never-before-seen gems like a little 3-D collage that recreates Picasso’s Parisian cafe lunch, complete with knife, fork, and plate of saucisson.
The Guardian’s Richard Shone wrote this weekend that in attempting to capture Picasso’s uniquely British legacy, such a show could perhaps instead serve “to denigrate most of Picasso’s British contemporaries, when seen alongside his towering achievements.” It’s a fair point, but fortunately it’s a concern the show manages to sidestep. These seven Brits come across not as slavish followers but rather a group who communally aknolwedge Picasso’s work as a turning point in their own careers.
Henry Moore’s voluptuous wood sculptures are glorious extensions of Picasso’s abstracted female forms, while Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (he abandoned an interior design career upon seeing the Dinard paintings) sits proudly on the wall, a triumph in its own alarming right.
David Hockney famously claims to have seen Picasso’s 1960 Tate blockbuster eight times and, when given the chance in 1980 to create the costumes for the ballet Parade, chose instead to revive Picasso’s own 1919 designs. And in honour of what he considered PIcasso’s most admirable quality, Hockney titled his seminal RCA Young Contemporaries exhibition “Demonstrations of Versatility.”
And it’s this sentiment which perhaps sums up the show’s ethos most succinctley. This is a celebration of Picasso’s variations, his diversity as a master of many media and the broad scope of his influence. He’s the star of the show, the vanguard of seven mignons, and it’s easy to see why we would struggle to find anyone to esteem more enthusiastically.
Through Picasso, generations of painters have learned the expressive power of distortion and the joys of colour. To see his work hung low on the gallery wall is to marvel at it all, from the smallest sketch to the largest canvas still thick with unspread paint.Picasso & Modern British Art runs from 15 February to 15 July 2012 at Tate Britain.
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